IRONMAN 70.3 Indian Wells – La Quinta – Race Recap

* A video version of this race recap can be found on my YouTube channel here.

A triathlon is a game of contradiction.

You spend hours, weeks, months training for something that lasts moments of your life. Improve at one sport by mastering three. Train slower to race faster. Race slower to race faster. Do it alone, surrounded by people. Never see a finish line as the end.

One of the most challenging contradictions is the trap of identity. To do well, you have to immerse yourself in training for long periods of time. It can become you; consume you. And then what is objectively a meaningless act of physical exertion assumes a station in your life that it never deserved. And you are left with nothing but finish times and medals, to gather dust because nobody cares.

I thought about these contradictions a lot during my training for my first Ironman 70.3 race in Indian Wells – La Quinta California. It seemed fitting in this vein of contradiction that I would train in the cold and snow in order to race in the warm desert. I hoped that by recognizing the contradictions inherent in what I was doing, I could avoid that most challenging trap, and come away with an experience, rather than just another race.

After Musselman in July, I took a break for a few weeks, and then started training again. I had a few minor injuries, which were challenging, but for the most part my training was consistent. I did some bike fitting and got a set of aerobars on my bike. Winter arrived early in Vermont; we had snow on the ground before Thanksgiving. So most of my riding was indoors. I ran outside as much as I could. And weather doesn’t matter in the pool, of course.

Swimming was a major area of focus for me this fall. I got a second swim analysis and really worked on my technique. I was able to take another ten seconds off my 100-yard time, and by December I was swimming faster on average than I ever had.

I had also been trying to eat smarter, both to be healthier and to drop extra weight. With the help of a friend, I definitely had some success here, though it added some stress to our family routine. Kids like what they like.

I was a little concerned about flying my bike to California, because I had only done it once before and I didn’t have to assemble it myself when I arrived that time. So I broke it down and packed it up at the bike shop so I could get guidance with questions that I had and hands-on help from Darren, my friend who owns Vermont Bicycle Shop. I felt a lot more confident once it was all ready to go.

The flights were pretty uneventful, and we made it to San Diego in one piece — including my bike. One of the first things I did was put it back together; I wanted to make sure I would have enough time to solve any problems that came up. Luckily, there didn’t seem to be any and the assembly went pretty smoothly.

The Catamount, my custom Orbea Terra, ready to ride

We spent a few days with my brother’s family in San Diego, hiking at Torrey Pines and playing on the beach. It was a nice way to get acclimated to the environment. It wasn’t as warm as I thought it would be, but it definitely was a lot warmer than Vermont. Locals on the beach were dressed in winter coats and hats, but our girls thought it was the perfect weather for swimming in the Pacific.

Before long it was time to drive to Indian Wells. The amazing scenery on that drive took us all by surprise. We stopped for a moment but the day before the race was very busy so there wasn’t a lot of time for sight-seeing.

After getting the family settled at the hotel, I had my first Ironman athlete check-in experience and got to see the pro panel, which included the eventual race winners Lionel Sanders and Paula Findlay. I checked my run gear in to T2, a little overwhelmed by the enormity of the transition area. Then it was time for a half-hour drive to the swim start and T1, to see the swim course, check in my bike and decontaminate my wetsuit before hanging it on the racks where it would stay until race morning. I made sure to mark it well so I wouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

My day would have gone quite differently if it hadn’t been for my teammate Lacy. She and her husband gave me a lift to the shuttle buses, which was already a great help by itself, but when she mentioned her water bottles I realized I had forgotten something at the hotel. Specifically, all of my hydration. It was still sitting in my refrigerator. They drove me back so I could retrieve them and I was so grateful. Luckily we were up early enough that it didn’t affect our day — we got on a bus with no waiting and were off to the start area.

I knew the water would be cold. The reported temperature that morning was just under 59 degrees. There was no warm-up swim. We stood in line at the rolling start for a long time before finally getting into the water. And then, finally, after everything, I was racing.

The first one or two hundred meters were tough. I was hyperventilating from the shock of the water temperature and struggling to relax and find my rhythm. I expected that, but it didn’t make it any easier. Finally I settled in, though, and found my zone. It was clear pretty quickly that I should have seeded myself further forward; nobody around me was actually swimming at the pace they lined up for. I was crawling over people all the way. My goggles half-filled with water but I ignored it since I could still see. When I finally crawled out of the lake, I had a personal best time of 34 minutes. By my watch, I had swum ten seconds per 100 yards faster than my first 70.3 in July.

As I mounted my bike, I readied myself mentally to face the biggest contradiction of the day. I had programmed the wattage target my coach and I agreed on into my bike computer, and I was going to stick to that number like superglue. The paradox of my plan was that the number was low. It was lower than I had expected. It was lower than it was at my first 70.3, and it was low relative to my power profile. It was so low that it meant I’d be doing what amounted to a zone 2 ride for the entirety of the bike leg.

The plan was predicated on the knowledge that the course was pancake flat, and that triathlons succeed or fail on the run. We would conserve energy on the bike, allowing my inertia to do most of the work, and hopefully get off the bike with enough in the tank to really drop the hammer.

So what the bike ended up being was a test of patience, rather than fitness. My heart rate stayed low, peaking only at the very start during the excitement of transition and climbing a tiny hill out of transition. I spent a lot of the time focused on avoiding drafting as much as I could, but it was pretty difficult considering that the roads were absolutely packed with riders. That forced me to surge occasionally, but it was okay because the course was so flat.

The first 20 miles flew by so fast that I was actually surprised when I saw the mile marker sign. At 30 miles I felt no worse; very comfortable and just cruising along. It was a strong contrast to my last race, where the 30 mile marker saw me doing pretty solid work. I began to get excited about the paradoxical plan as evidence in its favor continued to build. That naturally inclined me to want to push harder, but I redoubled my efforts to stay focused and in my target zone.

The highlight of the bike course by far was the Thermal Raceway, which is a private racetrack for cars that we got to ride around on. My watts went up on that section for sure, but it was a match that was worth burning. It’s a unique experience to ride your bike around a banked track with perfect pavement, designed for million dollar super cars. I had a lot of fun there.

The rest of the course was technically uphill but the gradient was so gradual, I barely noticed. I rode into T2 just 2 watts over my target. My family was cheering at the dismount line, which was a nice boost going into the start of my run.

After racking my bike and strapping on my running shoes, I started out on the final leg, to see if the contradictions would be resolved. Here I was, running in the heat and sun after training for months in the cold and snow. Here I was, having biked slowly on purpose to see if I could do a faster race. And here I was, after weeks of training at a jog, pushing my legs to go fast, and stay fast.

I have always run fast out of transition, because it takes a mile or two before my legs really feel normal and I can tell how my body is actually doing. At my first 70.3, I slowed that pace after the first aid station, feeling that I would have to conserve energy to make it through the run without shutting down. This day, though, I felt strong. I felt no such impending decline. I felt like I could hold the pace. So I didn’t slow down.

The run followed asphalt roads for a couple of miles before turning off onto a golf course, where it tracked around the greens on a winding, undulating path that was a mix of concrete, dirt and grass. There were no long straightaways, no places to hide from the course. It was highly dynamic and constantly changing.

A conclusion I had drawn from my first 70.3 was that I had been underfueled. This time, I ate and drank everything I could get my hands on during the run. I think I probably ate two or three whole bananas, a half at a time, plus several gels and all the coke, gatorade and red bull I could grab. I didn’t slow down during the aid stations; I didn’t want to lose my inertia. At one point I took a cup of ice, dumped it in my hat and packed it onto my head. The contrasts had never been more stark — at home I had been wearing winter hats to keep the snow off my head; today, I was deliberately packing ice onto my scalp.

It was a two-lap course which meant that I had to run agonizingly close to the finish line at around mile seven, only to have to turn around and do the entire thing one more time. Now I knew what to expect, though, and I knew where to push and where I could relax. Now all I had to do was hold my pace.

When the second lap of the course started to beat me, I focused on my family, waiting for me at the finish, and steeled myself in the resolve to make this all worth it. What was the point of asking so much of them, to support my training, to spend an entire day of our vacation standing around, if I didn’t make it worth it? I wasn’t going to slow down for anything.

The last couple of miles were hard and my pace started to slip a little bit, but I was still moving faster than I had ever really expected. I found my family just before the finish line, gave everybody high-fives, and then took it over the line. It was a personal best by a long margin, with personal records in every part of the race. I almost couldn’t believe it, but there it was.

If there’s one thing I learned from this race experience, it’s that you can’t always see contradictions as obstacles. Sometimes, they are puzzle pieces in a larger pattern that you can’t fully recognize until you’ve put it all together. You can’t always resist the things that don’t make sense; sometimes, you have to lean into them, make them part of your plan and see them through to the end. And that’s when you can find clarity.

We closed out our trip with a drive through Joshua Tree National Park, marveling at the natural beauty of the desert before boarding our plane to fly back into winter. With California behind us, it was time to look forward to a new year, and new contradictions.

Watch the video version of this race recap:

Musselman 70.3 – Race Report

My first 70.3 race was a life experience that feels almost too complex to sum up in mere words. I’ve been trying to find my way to describing all of the different things it was for over two months now, and I haven’t gotten very far. I’m not sure it’s something that can be put into words at all, at least not the true core nature of it. It’s an experience, and experiencing it is probably the only real way to know it. Words, as much as I love them, are sometimes just a pale facsimile of the truth they attempt to describe.

So with that in mind, here at last is a basic run-down of how the race went. I also cut together a video that gets at my outlook and emotions surrounding the event a little bit, but probably doesn’t do much better than the words, in the end. (You can watch the video on YouTube here, or embedded below at the end of this post)

Swim
0:37:52 – 1st in Division (Clydesdale)

Perfect. Honestly my favorite part of the day, which surprised me. I missed the warmup in the water because I chose to use the bathroom (successfully, so a good choice I think). The lake was so shallow, though, that everyone walked for at least 100 yards, with resistance from the water it was a good warmup. But I had fun, swam strong the whole way, and finished in the range I knew from practice would mean I wasn’t slow and didn’t blow up. I had 1:40/100 on my watch, official time pace was 1:48, probably due to the swim exit to the mat and the standing around during the wave start. No anxiety once i got going, no issues, just ground it out and watched the fish. I felt most prepared for the swim out of all three, when all was said and done. I was not expecting the swim to be the most enjoyable part of the race, but I really did have a lot of fun with it. I also didn’t expect to win my division in the swim, so that was a nice bonus.

Swim exit

Bike
2:49:40 – 2nd in Division (Clydesdale)

My first significant plan deviation happened on the bike, but I didn’t realize it until later. For some reason I had it in my head that my coach said 250 average watts as my target, but it was 250 normalized power. Oops. For what it was worth, I ended with 256 AP on my computer so I felt good about hitting my number, even if it turned out to be the wrong one. Overall I was about 15 watts over the intended plan. I put down two bottles of water and two bottles of Gatorade Endurance, plus two 5-oz squeeze bottles of maple syrup. All of which I brought with me. Every aid station I grabbed water and doused myself. All in all fairly uneventful. Big headwinds on some roads, went from one lake to another and back. 2 miles of gravel. Only one hill I would call a ‘climb,’ but 2,000 ft of accumulated elevation. I felt good on the bike, working but not pushing super hard. The last 5 miles or so started to feel a bit uncomfortable, and I was just ready to get off the bike.

Photographer caught me mid-snack

Run
2:10:00 – 2nd in Division (Clydesdale)

Here, of course, is where things got ‘interesting.’ I felt surprisingly good going out. Smiled and waved to my family and wasn’t even faking it. I was having fun! After I cleared the greater transition area, I looked at my watch and realized I was doing like 8:00/mile out of the gate, so I slowed that roll pretty quick and settled into around 8:50-9:30 for the first 4 miles. Then the hills started and I got slower, which was normal and fine. But then mile 7 was upon me and I got massive, massive intestinal cramping. Like really bad. It stopped me dead for maybe 30 seconds. Then I was walking, not wanting to give up. Happened to be on the biggest climb of the course where a lot of people walked anyway, so that was sort of a blessing in disguise I guess. I was eyeing the bushes and trying to decide if I needed to try a pit stop, but eventually ripped a massive…shall we say…’flatulent expulsion.’ Just gas, no soiled britches. And then I was running again! Got back up to around 9’s here and there, especially on the descents back into town. I still had minor cramping happening but it was small enough to ignore. But the whole ordeal took a lot out of me. I tried to pick it up at mile ten, knowing there was just a 5K left, but it didn’t last. I had almost nothing left for the last mile. Just slogged it in. The one bright spot at that point, besides the finish and my family, was that I passed a superstar aero guy who had passed me on the bike at mile 42 on the gravel. I guess he bonked harder than me. He was walking. I felt bad for him but it was also confirmation of what my coach said — a pass on the bike is momentary. A pass on the run is final.

Heading out on the run

Finish and Post-Race
5:43:24 – 2nd in Division (Clydesdale), 72/208 Gender, 96/343 Overall

I was pleased as punch to discover I had made my way to the podium in my division. The Clydesdale division, when it exists, is something of a dilemma, because weight is the only criterion for entering. But there’s a big difference between 250 pounds of muscle and 250 pounds of fat, for example. So it’s not always necessarily the equalizer it’s intended to be. The competition in this division was strong at this race; the winner completed it in under 5:30:00. I would have needed to be 10 minutes faster on the bike and at least 5 minutes faster on the run to win, not to mention faster transitions. I was very happy with what I accomplished and felt that I did the best I possibly could have, considering the challenges I faced (both this year and during the race itself).

Made it

Having my family, both close and extended, there to support me along with some close friends really made all the difference, though. For the last two miles, they were all I thought about. I hugged my kids just before the finish and felt a great sense of relief crossing the final threshold.

While waiting for the awards, I had the opportunity to meet and chat briefly with Jennie and David Hansen, two of my Ironman heroes. They were as friendly and open as could be. They both crushed their races. Jennie did the combination race, which was the sprint on Saturday and the 70.3 on Sunday, and won everything.

Video Report

I made a video about the race, attempting to summarize it from another sort of approach. You can watch that here:

Race Report: Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon

My first triathlon of 2019 was a sprint distance race held in southern New Hampshire, called the Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon. I settled on this race in particular after several months of research, trying to find a race that was both within driving distance and lined up with my training schedule for my 70.3 race. I didn’t know anything about it other than what I found on the website and Facebook page, but it was the 10th annual running of the event, so it seemed likely to be a well-organized race.

Pre-Race

An added bonus to this race was that my wife’s parents and brother live just an hour away from the race location, so we were all able to stay with them and combine it into a family visit. It’s a huge benefit to race day preparations to be in a comfortable location with family before an event, so I’m grateful we were able to have that opportunity. I went to bed at the same time as my kids, and actually managed to sleep through most of the night. I only woke up once, at about 3 AM, and then drifted in and out until about 5, when I got up.

Breakfast was my customary bowl of oatmeal flavored with maple syrup with a coffee. While I had the syrup out, I took the opportunity to fill my gel bottle. I still wasn’t sure if I would even use fuel during the race, because it was so short, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to have it along.

I had everything pretty much ready to go the night before, so all I had to do in the morning was load my bike, put my transition bag in the car, and head out. The drive was uneventful. As I got close to Nashua, I started to see more and more cars carrying bikes. It wasn’t long before I saw a fully decked out Quintana Roo on the back of a pickup. Welcome to New Hampshire.

Parking was an absolute nightmare. There was a lot designated for racers, which was the entire area around a local school, but it was already packed to the gills by the time I arrived. I ended up having to park underneath a swing set. I checked the air in my tires at my car, put my transition bag on my bag and rode to the transition area.

Transition was pretty well organized, with everyone having a marked spot on the racks. Once again my bike was too tall to fit very well on the rack. The saddle was too high to easily get it under the bar, and then there wasn’t enough of a hang to keep it on there securely. Not much I could do about it, so I set up my transition stuff and went to get body-marked, check out the transition routes, and wander down to the water.

My transition setup. My rear wheel is basically on the ground.

There were about 15 minutes of announcements before the race, which felt like they took forever. I tried to keep my arms moving, doing some arm circles and such, but mostly just stood around feeling my springs coil. Finally, they started calling waves. Everyone had an assigned wave number, and when your wave was called, you went down to a dock area to check-in and queue up for the start.

Swim

This was my first race wearing a wetsuit. It was also my first race with a wave start. It cheated everyone out of some time, because the timing mat was on the dock and the waves treaded water for a minute or two before actually starting. But at least everyone lost the same amount of time, so it didn’t really matter.

I put some water on the back of my neck just before jumping in, but it felt like a warm bath. I was prepared for a cold shock when stepped off the dock, but it was just balmy. I grabbed the start line rope and floated until the starter gave us the go signal, then I was off.

One of the first waves heading out

Almost immediately, I felt like something was wrong. I wasn’t more than 30 seconds into it and I felt absolutely awful. I thought I might be getting sick. Was I even moving? I couldn’t really tell. My line was way off, too, and I kept veering to the right. I tried to focus on my technique and things got a little better. I decided that whatever I was feeling, it wasn’t getting any worse, so I would just push through it. I had done enough swim training to know that I wouldn’t suddenly drown or anything, especially while wearing a buoyant wetsuit. The worst case was that my arm strength would just give out, and it hadn’t yet. So there was no reason to stop. On I went.

About halfway through the loop, I started catching some people. I have no idea if they were in my wave or the wave before mine, or possibly the wave after mine, having gotten ahead of me at the start. I didn’t try to swim over anyone but I didn’t really seem them coming, either, so some contact was inevitable.

I hadn’t set a goal time for the swim, but from experience I expected something between 10-15 minutes in the back of my mind. When I finally stood up to exit, it felt like it had been twice that, but I figured realistically it was maybe 12 minutes.

I looked at my watch and saw an 8. Suddenly things made a little more sense. I had been going faster — much faster — than I thought. No wonder I felt like my chest was going to explode.

Official Swim Time: 8:49 (.3 mi) – 1:41/100 yd
7/32 in age group; 34/414 overall

T1

T1 sent us up a sandy path through the woods to the grassy area where the bikes were. There were wetsuit strippers waiting for us, which was awesome. I pulled my wetsuit down below my waist, slid into home on the tarp, and my suit was popped off before I even knew what was happening. I thanked the volunteers and headed to my bike.

About to get stripped

I had toyed a bit with leaving my shoes on my bike with rubber bands, but ultimately couldn’t really figure out how to do it so it worked properly, and I was worried about the rubber bands getting caught in my gears, so I decided to just put my shoes on in transition, run the bike out, and clip in. I certainly wasn’t going to try a flying mount, so this was a reasonable option for me. At the last second I grabbed my maple syrup bottle and slid it into my tri suit pocket.

Official T1 time: 3:13 – 91/414 overall

Bike

The bike route was very short, and very flat. I’d only done three previous races before this one, but this was the shortest and flattest by far. I had been doing a lot of mental gymnastics about the bike leg in the days leading up to the race, debating my approach. Overall, I wanted this race to be something of a practice session for my 70.3 — transition logistics, using a wetsuit, etc. I thought about also extending that to pacing, to practice the mental and emotional control required to slow myself down at the start of the bike leg so that I would be able to hold the right pace throughout, and then have enough left over for the run. But as soon as I was clipped in, that decision was made. It was go time.

Because I didn’t have any pacing or power targets, I ended up watching my heart rate most of all while out on the course, followed by my speed. My heart rate was shockingly high compared to the levels I was used to seeing during my training, which is predominantly spent in zone 2. But I knew that wasn’t necessarily a problem. The race was short enough that I could work at or above threshold for the whole thing. They call it a sprint for a reason, after all.

The other fun thing about a sprint is that passing someone on the bike leg is usually permanent. In a longer race, it can often be just the first of two meetings, the second of which being when they come back and smoke you on the run. But in a sprint, they are more likely to run out of road if you go full throttle on the bike. Since it was a wave start, I knew that passing people was not an entirely accurate representation of my place in the field. But it was motivating anyway. So I reeled in as many people as I could, and made sure that nobody passed me. The best part was passing those $6,000 tri bikes on my gravel bike with regular old drop bars.

As it turned out, I was glad to have my maple syrup on board. I took a couple hits, one partway through and one just before T2. It felt helpful, and made me realize that I would probably need more fuel than I had been thinking during my longer race in July.

The bike course covered, I had a clean dismount just at the line, and ran my bike in to the transition area again.

Official Bike Time: 25:45 (9.6 mi) – 22.4/mph
4/32 in age group; 18/414 overall

T2

T2 was my slowest performance on the day, relative to the field. I didn’t deliberately go slow, but I wasn’t rushing, either. I’m pretty particular about how my shoe lace-up feels, and that combined with the socks I use (which are not super easy to get on) probably accounted for my slow time. But I made it out on the run with everything I needed and feeling pretty good, so I wasn’t too worried about blitzing through T2.

Official time: 1:51 – 313/414 overall

Run

I expected to be running fast out of transition, having experienced that phenomenon before. Adrenaline is high and you are excited to just get going, and before you know it you’re running way faster than you expected. I checked my watch after a couple hundred yards and saw I was running close to 7:30 min/mi, which is very fast for me. For reference, I ran all of my sprints last year at around 9:00 min/mi. My first reaction was to feel like I needed to back off, slow down and find a more conservative pace, but then I remembered it was only 3.1 miles. I was able to hold a strong pace through the swim and bike, why not the run? Might as well go for it, and see how long I could hold it before I slowed down. The worst case was that my pace would slow for the back half of the race, but I knew I would finish no matter what. Go time continued.

I focused on my cadence through most of the run, trying to keep the rhythm even and high. That seems to be my key to running fast (such that “fast” is, for me), when I need to. If I think about ‘running fast,’ it’s harder to do, but if I just focus on my cadence, it’s easier for some reason.

The run was also a very flat course, with only a couple slight inclines, when my pace dipped closer to 8:00 min/mi. I was able to hold my cadence pretty well throughout. Two or three people passed me, including a 60+ year old woman and a kid, wearing the race t-shirt. Sigh. But overall I held my pace and I felt strong throughout.

By the time the last half-mile came around, I was starting to feel it, particularly in my hips and my abdominals. I was definitely on the edge, pushing to maintain the pace. There wasn’t much of anything left for a late surge, all I could do was hold what I had through the chute and over the finish line.

Official Run Time: 24:19 (3.1 mi) – 7:50/mi
11/32 in age group; 65/414 overall

Overall Results:
Time: 1:03:55
5/32 in age group; 34/219 by gender; 36/414 overall

Post Race & Summary

The race venue had a lot of activities for kids, which was great for when my family arrived. There were at least three bouncy houses, plus a clown making balloon animals, and kid-friendly food. The food was great, and there was tons of it, all of it free as far as I could tell, at least for racers. It wasn’t just bananas and bagels, there was an entire sandwich buffet, flatbread pizza, Italian ice, all kinds of things. The only real negatives for me about the race organization and venue were parking and the lack of a professional race photographer (there were only official volunteers, who took substandard photos and whose coverage was incomplete). Otherwise, it was a well-organized and fun race on a decent course.

As far as my performance goes, I came away a little surprised and with a lot to think about. I had definitely underestimated my potential in the water and on the run. I really didn’t have any idea that I could swim or run that fast over any distance. Almost immediately, I started thinking ahead to July, and trying to sort out what that means for my 70.3. Obviously I won’t be racing at these speeds at that distance. But my personal bar has been raised, there’s no getting around that. Now I have the task of handling that knowledge without it infiltrating my head in a negative way. Expectations for a race are not usually helpful.

I tried to examine whether I could have gone any faster, any harder, improved in any area in order to jump to the 1st-3rd place podium from my 5th place spot. I would have had to be about 6 mins faster to do that. Certainly I was maxed on the swim. I don’t think I was at maximum capacity on the bike, but I was fairly close. The run didn’t have a whole lot of room to give, either. When I look at the actual times between 5th (me) and 3rd, here’s what I find:

PlaceSwimT1BikeT2RunTotal
3rd8:202:2525:390:3521:0958:06
5th (me)8:493:1325:561:5124:191:03:55
Difference:0:290:480:171:163:105:49

Clearly the majority of time lost was on the run. That isn’t surprising to me, since I’ve never been a fast runner. But I’m encouraged, because I’m way faster than I used to be. The next biggest deficit was T2, followed relatively closely by T1. The differences on the swim and the bike combined could be easily surmounted by improving just my transitions alone. Or I could have pushed a bit harder on the climbs (such as they were) on the bike and probably wiped out a lot of that time. But most of the improvement work to be done is clearly in my run.

Is this a microcosm of what I can expect at longer distance? It will be interesting to see how the ratios play out there. I’d also be interested in comparing these relative results to my results from last year’s sprints. That is, how much slower — relative to the field — was I in transition vs. the bike leg, or run leg. Maybe that will be a good subject for a future post. You can’t compare races 1:1, but I think you can get a sense of how the relative balance of everything plays out, and what that means for your skill set and fitness level. If nothing else, it’s an interesting diversion.

Triathlon: 1 Year In

Today (ok not today, but the day I started actually writing this, about a week ago) marks 365 days since I started my training plan last year for my first sprint triathlon. A lot has happened since then.

I started with a strength day, of all things, and just based on that fact alone, I’m amazed that I stuck with it this long. It’s one of my least favorite types of exercise to do. Following a 12-week plan extracted from a book, I got myself together enough to complete my first sprint distance triathlon. One of the first things I learned was what stuff I needed to bring to the race and what I didn’t (look at all those towels! lol). I did my second sprint just two weeks later, which was a big help in maintaining consistency, I think. There’s a very real possibility that, had I needed to wait a month or two until my next race, I might have dropped the ball. But there wasn’t much time to do much of anything except recover, and it was off to my second race. That one was a lot of fun; I was solidly hooked by that point. September rolled around and it was time for my third race, which I had considered my “A” race for the season, even though it was also a sprint like the others. I swam, biked and ran my way to the Clydesdale podium, winning my division, with a time that also would have been in contention in my age group, had I gone that route.

With that, I had proved to myself that I liked this sport. I hadn’t yet felt bored, or struggled to continue training for mental/emotional reasons. I’d had a couple of minor injury hiccups along the way, which seemed enormous at the time, but were really just bumps in the road. It really looked good for my goals of consistency and, eventually, performance. I hired a coach. I bought a new bike. Things were moving.

Then I got hit by a car. And everything changed. I had a concussion that would take me five months to recover from. In the interim I managed to stay as active as was possible, mostly by walking on the treadmill, and eventually doing relatively short and easy indoor trainer rides. I applied my focus to producing video content, and went to Puerto Rico for a cycling adventure vacation (I’m just realizing I never really posted about that; I’m working on a larger video that will showcase the whole trip. It’s slow going but I hope to have it done soon).

At the five month mark, I really started to feel normal again. I was pushing hard on a lot of workouts, and finally suffering no ill effects. Looking back, I can see how I was really charging ahead when this happened, going a lot harder than I probably should have a lot of times. Which I think is understandable considering how long I had been under wraps. My training and fitness levels really started to climb at that point.

I’ve still got a ways to go on intelligently managing my IF,
but Concussion Valley is looking smaller every day

I rode outdoors in Vermont for the first time at the Muddy Onion, which was also my first outdoor ride with a power meter. Shortly afterward, I did my first FTP test. Now I have a baseline for understanding my efforts and training with real structure.

Consistency is there. Fitness is getting there. Performance remains to be seen. I’ve done a lot, learned a lot, and been through a lot. My weight is still not where it should be, but I’ve made progress:

26 pounds lost over 1 year, while building a fair amount of heavy cycling muscle.

Tomorrow I’m riding in the Whiteface Mountain Uphill Bike Race, which I consider my first performance challenge of the season. I’m not out to win it or anything (fat chance, literally, with a Clydesdale division that starts at 190 pounds), but I do hope to lay down some effort that I can be proud of. And then right around the corner is my first triathlon of 2019, a sprint-distance rust shaker in Nashua NH.

It’s been a good first year, overall. I’m grateful to have found this sport, even more grateful to be able to practice and compete in it, and hopeful and optimistic for what it means for my future.

Slow Going

It’s been about a month since the collision happened now, and recovering from the concussion has been frustratingly slow going. Over the weekend I made my second attempt at running since the incident, and the next day I was nauseous and dizzy again. I had been looking forward to being healthy enough to do the prep work and testing week that my coach has had the team doing, begrudgingly accepting that I’d just be a week behind. It took me a lot of internal arguing and self-reflection but ultimately I accepted that it just isn’t time yet. I wrote my coach that I wasn’t ready. Then I sat down and cried.
It’s not all a sob story – it gave me some important realizations. One is to crystallize my goals and intentions. My wife told me “at least it didn’t happen the month before a race.” Sage advice, to be sure, but in hearing it, I realized that the race isn’t my ‘why.’ It’s not actually the most important thing to me, not by a long shot. I’m gunning for consistency and lifestyle change, becoming a “full-time-part-time” athlete. That’s what had made me sad – the realization that I had to let go of my ambitions to be consistently active through this period of the year, which has always been my most challenging period. I was so motivated and prepared and ready to do it. My brain just isn’t ready yet. But now I clearly see what’s most important to me – consistency over time. So I feel more prepared to be patient and exercise restraint.
My goal now is to be healthy. I want to do my baseline tests, not because everyone else is doing them, but because they will give me and my coach information and data that will make it achievable for me to train consistently over the long term. That’s the point of doing it. And I suppose I have my bruised brain to thank for the realization. I guess concussions are good for something.

In the good news of the day, I got my bike back from the bike shop, and it’s a thing of beauty.  Upgraded wheelset means it dropped a full pound.  It’s so light now, it’s like it doesn’t even exist! 

Adventure Ride

Some pretty big stuff has happened since I last wrote an entry, but for now I’m going to step back to recap a fun ride that I did just before winter hit here.

There’s a great and eclectic group of people that I’ve connected with through the local bike shop, Vermont Bicycle Shop, who are part of the shop’s “adventure club.” It’s not exactly a team, and not exactly a club in the traditional sense, and not exactly anything else.  It’s a somewhat loose collection of people, most of whom hang around the shop fairly frequently, who get together and go on halfway madcap rides that deliberately seek out challenging, weird or nonsensical destinations and routes. The one thing I’ve seen that this ragtag band of cyclists (in the broadest of definitions) all have in common is that bikes are an extension of their identity in one way or another.  Lots of people enjoy cycling; for these folks, the line of distinction between themselves and the bicycle is hard to find.  

I’m the only triathlete in the group, and one of the few with a roadie background, so I amicably bear the brunt of a lot of jokes about aerodynamics and fancy equipment.  I don’t mind.  It’s always good to receive perspective from others, and there’s plenty of opportunity for me to jovially strike back when the mood is right.  

The ride of the day was to be a gravel ride, on dirt roads with quality ranging from “maintained” to what’s known around here as “Class IV.”  To normal people, a Class IV road is something you would normally only see on the Discovery Channel or if you got lost in the woods.  Usually just a vestige of the past and only technically a road, they are swaths of relatively clear space cutting through the remote Vermont forests, littered with rocky glacial remains and leading to places only the hardiest of folk will ever see. To adventure bikers, it just means ‘fun.’

The group gathered at my house, as it was the ideal starting point for this particular loop.  That gave everyone plenty of opportunity to make fun of my brand new Bont triathlon shoes, which I had just gotten fitted since literally tearing the soles off my ancient pair of Garneaus.  Considering it was about 35 deg. F and these shoes are basically open-air slabs of carbon with velcro straps on top (they don’t even have a tongue), they were definitely an unusual choice for the day. They were my only choice, though, apart from putting platform pedals on my bike and wearing hiking boots.  I was too excited to try them out to miss the chance, so I doubled up my socks and stuck some plastic baggies over my toes in between and let the ribbing fly.

We set out, starting on dirt roads and heading further away from civilization as we went.  One of us realized he had a soft tire, but luckily we were riding right by his house so he stopped to swap out his bike (the N+1 rule is widely followed in this group.  I’m an outlier, having a mere two bicycles in my possession). No big deal, and we continued onward.

Some of my favorite parts of the day were when we paused to regroup, and found ourselves in a serene section of the forest, where nobody was around, but there were quiet signs of life if you knew where to look.  A farmer’s field, just through the treeline.  The peripheral lines of a sugarbush down the hill. An abandoned cabin by a pond, once idyllic, now forgotten and reclaimed by the encroaching wilderness.  Artwork on an old barn.

These are the moments that give ‘adventure biking’ its definition for me, personally.  But everyone has their own ideas of what it means, which is part of why it’s such an interesting thing to do.

Our first Class IV section was traversed with great enjoyment, and spilled us back out onto a dive-bombing gravel road that intersected suddenly with a main asphalt town highway.  Brakes were vigorously applied.  Luckily, none failed.

From there, a decision was to be had. Do we continue on the planned route, or do we diverge back into the woods to tackle a serious Class IV section that promised adventure of the hardiest sort, an incredibly technical downhill on terrain that could only be called a ‘road’ if you squinted real hard, were slightly drunk and had never seen a river before?  I had the suspicion that this was the plan of the ride’s organizer (shop owner and mechanic Darren) all along, and that he lured everyone in with the relatively sane route in order to spring the change of tack on them at the fateful moment of divergence.  It wasn’t a far stretch with this group; the decision was all but foregone.  Plus, Darren brought snacks.  So off we went.  To adventure!

Getting to the challenging bit required some more climbing on dirt roads, which was fine by me.  I love climbing, and I love doing it on dirt roads, now that I’m the proud owner of an Orbea Terra, which is basically a carbon frame road bike with almost-all-terrain tires.  I felt great and looked forward to every foot we went up.  

Back into the woods we went, and the challenge was suddenly upon us.  Photographs and videos unfortunately can’t do it justice, and my phone died from the cold before I made it to the bottom, which is where the better perspective would have been provided.  But picture a steep hill in the forest.  Now, make it twice as steep.  Now, rake out all the trees in an 10-foot-wide swath, straight down the hill.  Then erode it with wind and particularly water for about 100 years.  Find all the boulders and rocks under the soil that you can, and leave them there.  Call it a “Class IV” road.  Now get on your bike.

Those riding fat bikes were the only ones to make it down successfully.  The more experienced riders on gravel bikes generally made it about halfway.  Darren made it ¾ of the way down, displaying excellent bike handling skills, but then missed a line and over he went.  He was certain he’d cracked his frame and damaged his drive train because he landed right on a boulder, but he miraculously evaded consequences.

For my part, I stopped about halfway down and walked.  I knew there was no way I was going to survive the descent without falling, and I didn’t want to break anything – on myself or my bike.  What I hadn’t accounted for was my shoes.  Walking down a mostly-dry glacial riverbed meant I was slipping and stumbling off boulders with every step.  Not exactly the surface a pair of triathlon shoes were meant to walk on.  After I got home later, I photographed the bottoms of my brand new babies and sent the picture to Darren in horror, asking if I had just ruined everything.  Luckily the damage is largely cosmetic.  But I’ll be re-thinking my footwear choices for this kind of ride in the future for sure.

Once we all made it down, across an intersecting stream bed and up a hill on the other side, it was back out onto gravel roads and onward to home.  We had all met a challenge together, survived it and had a blast doing it.  Exactly what an adventure ride is meant to be.

Back in the zone

4 days down this week, with little to no hesitation or holding back, and things seem to be holding up well. I’ve had moments of tightness but no pain.

I’m trying to take lessons from this experience. It was a very minor injury, all things considered. It hasn’t taken long to get back to training how I want to be training. I missed a couple of runs and bikes but I was still able to swim, and swim pretty hard. My reaction was an emotional one, out of proportion and probably detrimental to other aspects of my life.

It’s yet another example of triathlon teaching life lessons. Find perspective. Things are rarely as bad as they seem. Above all, remember and learn, and apply next time.

This week has been a sudden preview of the coming onslaught of winter, and a test of my cold weather riding gear. My first ride was in 35 degree rain; today it was 28 degrees and snowing. I know I’m going to need an indoor trainer, but I’m putting it off as long as possible. Being outdoors is too important.

On the way home today I rode by my youngest daughter’s outdoor ECO class and stopped by for a visit and some tic tac toe with sticks and leaves. Definitely a highlight of a very cold ride.

Easy run

Today I went out for an easy run. It was on the schedule as an easy chill run anyway, but I took it extra slow, running near 11-minute miles and being really careful on the hills in particular. I stopped a couple of times to stretch also.

I felt the muscle pull but it didn’t hurt. I didn’t feel like it was slowing me down. A few times there were periods where I didn’t feel it at all.

Afterward, I felt it probably more than I had during the run itself. So I don’t think it’s completely better, and I’m not sure what will happen when I get back on the bike. But for now I’m glad to have been able to get out for a quick run at least, and get a green compliance day on TP. I’m trying not to be overconfident about it, but I’m very eager to put those red non-compliance days far behind me soon.

Injuries

Early in this year of training, I hurt my calf. Just running along, then all of a sudden whoops, my calf is busted. It was a bad pull if not a tear, and it was debilitating and discouraging and basically awful. When you’ve built so much into your training, not just as physical conditioning but also as an emotional and mental therapy, being prevented from doing it is close to nightmare.

Yesterday I went out for a run in the cold rain. I started on hills, which was nothing particularly new. At my turnaround point, I felt something in my upper inner thigh. And it wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t one of those normal running pains that come and go. It was flaring when my thigh went back and when I brought it forward, a sharp kind of pain that felt white and distinct. Before long, I was walking. The first time I’d had to walk since I hurt my calf. I walked for about a mile and then was able to jog home slowly. I knew I couldn’t do my scheduled strength workout though. My first scratched workout in this 12-week plan.

I didn’t pay enough attention to myself when my calf got hurt. That is, I didn’t take note of the process of what happened after. At least not in a way that I internalized as any kind of useful information. If I had, I wouldn’t be so devastated right now. I would have learned something. I would believe in temporary, not permanent things. I would feel the value in rest and recovery, even if it’s forced. I would be okay.

I don’t feel okay.

I was able to swim today, a strength workout of about 2,000 yards total. Just an hour. I did it with a pull buoy so there was very little load on my legs. Still, I felt it when I had to stabilize myself in the water. It was hard to force out of my mind.

In the parking lot, I jogged to the car. Just to see. I felt it. Sore and tight. I wouldn’t make my run feeling how it felt. Another scratch.

It’s not failure. It’s part of the process. It happens. Injury and recovery. Build up and taper. Still.

I don’t feel okay.

Anxiety Dream

The other night I had a dream about triathlon. It was an anxiety-saturated, confusing mess of brain processing.

I was in the middle of doing Ironman Boston (a race which, I’m pretty sure, doesn’t exist). I think I had just gotten out of the swim, but I’m not sure. I was on top of a hill, and looking for the transition area. I guess it was T1 because I didn’t have a bike with me.

There were a few cones or flags or something , but then the route sort of devolved into an indistinct urban landscape, and I had no idea where to go. There were people everywhere, but strangely no other athletes. I was befuddled and rapidly becoming frustrated.

I made my way down the hill and then across an asphalt playground. I went inside a building, which seemed to be a school of some kind. I went through a series of rooms, trying to find any kind of information or help.

Eventually I managed to find the race director, of all people. He was in a small, cramped office and seemed more like a school administrator than an Ironman race organizer.

I made my frustrations known and he showed me on a map where I had to go – a long, meandering route, miles through the city, along railroad tracks and alleyways, just to reach the transition area.

There was nothing to do but move forward. I found the railroad line eventually, but realized I didn’t know which direction to follow them.

Luckily, I saw another athlete for the first time that day. It was a relay participant (apparently there was a relay in this Ironman, lol) and he was waiting for his team member to arrive to tag him. He was crouched down, legs coiled, ready to take off at a sprint…even though there was no other athlete in sight. Citizens walked down the street, side-stepping around him.

By the direction he was pointed, I deduced which way I had to go. And I was off again.

First ride on the new ride

This was meant to be a 1 hr workout with 30 minutes of ‘big gear’ in zone 3 or so, but I was hungry for a couple of climbs and was pretty amped up about being on my new bike. I followed the first couple of intervals but it quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to do that for the whole ride; not because I couldn’t hit the zones, but because I was in zone 3 for most of the ride. Slowing down on purpose on a climb isn’t normally in my nature and was even more unthinkable today.

The bike feels very light (because it is) and it’s really motivating to crank it up the hills. There’s a climb right near my house that I have been using as kind of a benchmark of strength progress. In May of this year, it took me about 6 minutes to do the segment. Today, I smashed my most recent PR by 9 seconds, making the climb in just over 4 minutes. That felt really good.

I know that for the long term, I need to learn to slow down — not just in terms of relative speed, but mentally. I’ll never finish a 70.3 riding amped up like this. But on a day when the point is to build strength, it’s pretty fun to hammer. Especially on a shiny new bike.